Ozark Regional Transit extends fare-free service through October; ridership down 53% in May

by Jeff Della Rosa ([email protected]) 1,215 views 

Springdale-based transit provider Ozark Regional Transit will continue to remain fare-free in light of the COVID-19 pandemic as ridership fell 53% in May, from the same month in 2019.

ORT board members extended a policy that allows passengers to refrain from paying a fare through October as a means to mitigate the spread of the virus. ORT has been fare-free since mid-March.

Before the pandemic, Fayetteville, Rogers and Springdale had opted to allow passengers to ride an ORT bus without having to pay a fare. Since the pandemic started, Bentonville and rural route passengers have not had to pay a fare because it helps to limit the interaction between drivers and riders, said Joel Gardner, executive director for ORT.

He said the mitigation efforts have worked as no employee has tested positive for the virus. Other efforts to mitigate the spread of the virus have included requiring face coverings or masks for all passengers and reducing the number of occupants on each bus. Including the driver, only 10 people are allowed to board a bus.

In a recent board meeting, Gardner said the occupancy restriction might be changed if it becomes an issue. So far, he said drivers have infrequently had to pass people waiting at stop bus because of the restriction. ORT has the option to increase its 35-foot-long buses to 17 occupants and 30-foot-long buses to 12 occupants and remain compliant with the 66% capacity restriction in place in Arkansas.

In May, total ridership, which includes fixed-route, charter and paratransit passengers, fell 53.8% to 10,547, from 22,820 in the same month in 2019. Between January and May, the ridership has declined 25.3% to 88,245, from 118,113 in the same period in 2019.

Losses related to a decline in ridership because of COVID can be offset with the federal grant ORT received from the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act that was approved in late March. On April 21, ORT was awarded $4.25 million to pay for pandemic-related expenses. Gardner said the funding can be used for up to two years or until it is spent.

ORT has about 85 employees, including nearly 65 drivers. Its offices and all transit services will cease operations Friday (July 3) in observance of Independence Day. Regular services will resume Monday (July 6).